Finding Your Voice

Everyone starts the same way, I think, by imitating their favorite authors. I was a Heinlein clone, then a knockoff Hemingway, for a while I was a poor Vonnegut. No matter who you are impressed with or how hard you try to fashion your work after theirs, your own style will inevitably work its way to the surface.

Take Mr. Stephen King and one of his stylistic elements that appears repeatedly in his books: The sacrificial character we get to know way too well.

Suppose we get to a point in the story where the bad guy is going to kill some random person, the mailman, for instance. King will open the chapter with a quick introduction to the character – “Barry Converse had been on this route for twenty years, ever since they put the bypass in off of Route 28 out near Sheffield. Being former Army and a man who always prided himself in staying in shape, he parked at the top of the hill and made his deliveries on foot…”

This will go on for pages, long enough that we will temporarily forget the larger story we were reading, and then the last four paragraphs will cover his grueling murder at the hands of whichever death bringer haunts this book.

Here are two true things about these King diversions:

  1. They are unnecessary, verbose, diverting and I wouldn’t accept them any other author dead or alive.
  2. I relish them in King’s books.

I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. If someone else were to pull that kind of performative character sacrifice on me, I would put the book down and happily move on. But I read and enjoy every one of these damn things in a King novel.

When it’s my turn to write the scene, no one who isn’t a character in the larger plot or the lesser arcs even gets a name. “The postman was the first to go, three red dots stitched across the front of his blue USPS jacket and emerged as three fist-sized holes in his back. He went down. The mail skittered into the street. The wind kicked up as if trying to finish the deliveries…”

How did I discover this was my style? By trying to copy King and just hating every minute of it. By going through the editing process and noticing I’m always removing these superfluous characters. By doing what feels natural and noting how it differs from my (unwilling) mentors.

The author who most shaped my style would have to be Raymond Chandler. I started as a detective novelist and I studied him so hard my first book was a 1940s noir detective story. But even then, when I was listening to Glenn Miller and reading old newspapers online to get the voice right in my head, I still felt like some of the similes (“She had a shape I could feel in my wallet”) were performative so I dropped most of them.

An artist friend of mine once likened the process to copying someone else’s picture. “Whatever comes out, that’s your version because it’s in your style.”

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